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The Exception

We conclude our summertime reading of “Reflections on Marriage” from Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way (anticipating that the summer reading club may find itself reading into fall and winter before we make it through the next and largest section of the book: “Guilty?”/”Not Guilty?”). The following passage is part of the final ten or twenty pages of “Reflections,” in which Judge William tentatively considers whether there may be a justifiable exception to what he has said in praise of marriage. It is hard not to see these concluding pages as an oblique (very oblique at times, like seeing through a glass darkly) apologia on the part of SK for his broken engagement with Regina.

To repeat the most essential points, he must not feel himself above the universal, but lower; he must a tout prix [at all costs] want to remain within it, for he is actually in love and, what is more, is a married man; he must want to remain within it for his own sake and must want it for the sake of them for whom he is willing to sacrifice his life, whereas instead he now sees their misery as if he were someone whose hands and feet have been cut off and whose tongue has been torn from his mouth — that is, without a single means of communication. He must feel himself to be the most wretched of men, the scum of humanity, must feel it doubly precisely because he knows, not in abstracto but in concreto, what the beautiful is. Then he sinks down, desperate in all his wretchedness, when that single word, that final, that ultimate word, so ultimate that it is not within human language, is not forthcoming, when the testimony is not with him, when he cannot tear open the sealed dispatch that is only opened out there and that contains the orders from God. This is the start of becoming an exception, if there is one at all; if all this is not a given, he is without justification. (p. 181)


  1. Yes, and it’s hard not to read the following as SK’s own, strange attempt at reconciling his will with the fate he felt looming before him:

    “Behold then a candidate for the cloister who cannot flatter himself with the encouragement he would have had in the Middle Ages, but who as a figure strange and alien to the contemporary consciousness must buy the hardest suffering at the highest price. My description is like a ready-made garment, the penitential shirt which the exception must wear – I do not think that anyone could fall in love with such a dress, mistaking it for pleasure.” (Lowrie 176)

    Here the previous page is clearly being referenced – just before the passage quoted by Jonathan:

    “He must comprehend that no one can understand him, and must have the constancy to put up with it that human language has for him naught but curses ,and the human heart has for his sufferings only the one feeling that he is guilty. And yet he must not harden himself against this, for that very same moment he is unjustified. He must feel how misunderstanding tortures him, just as the ascetic felt every instatnt the prick of the penitential shirt he wore next his skin – and in fact he has clad himself in misunderstanding in which it is terrible to be, like the apparel Hercules received from Omphale, in which he was burned up.” (Lowrie 175)

    And here I would reference the quotation from a letter by Kafka to his sister Ottla:

    “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

    And if it wasn’t clear already, let me say that all this makes me might-tee uncomfortable. It’s too much. I want to be an Augustinian again, not a Tertullian, while admitting that if we were studying Augustine I would probably want to be a Tertullian. When SK writes “He must comprehend that no one can understand him,” I get especially uneasy, for he seems to be mounting an assault on some divine throne.

    And yet the path of truth does lead through suffering, and if it must be described in psychological terms, this must be it.

    Question: when he writes that “he must feel how misunderstanding tortures him” does he mean the misunderstanding of others by him, or does he mean the misunderstanding of him by others? I think the latter, and yet I wonder if this is at odds with ‘the one feeling that he is guilty.’ So maybe I have that part backwards.


  2. By the way, Lowrie corrects the Omphale detail by noting that it was Deianeira who sent Hercules the poisoned shirt.

    This metaphor of the poisoned shirt is interesting. I can think of another, from Euripides’ Medea, in which Medea sends Jason’s young bride, Glauce, a bridal gown which is poisoned and burns her up. So it isn’t just that hero of stoicism that suffers.

    One more thing about that ‘ready-made’ garment: could we understand it as ‘off-the-shelf’ and perhaps even ‘one-size-fits-all’? Perhaps the analogy needn’t be carried quite so far, but I think that, interpreted this way, K has well emphasized what the nature of the exception is…

    … and yet I’m still troubled by what seems an almost masochistic attachment to suffering. There’s a cross to be carried, yes, but the burden is supposed to be light. Here it seems anything but. Or light, but poisoned. Actually poisoned! That seems perverse.

    Maybe this is a tad reductive, but that’s my first take.

  3. Jonathan Potter says

    True, it doesn’t seem like there is much breathing room here, no room for an ordinary monastic vocation — it’s all very stark. Yes, there may be an exception to the rule of marriage, but it is only when there are anomalies present.

    “If in his quest for the resolution the lover encounters anomalies, finds that he has become singular, not in the sense that this singularity promptly comes off in the washing of resolution, but singular in such a way that he does not dare to trust that he is a universal human being, in other words if he encounters repentance, then it may last a long time, and if he is really in love, as is indeed assumed, then he can regard himself as someone selected to be examined by life, for when he is questioned by love up one side and by repentance down the other side about the same thing, his examination becomes too rigorous.” (164)

    I wonder if this harshness isn’t in part a protestant harshness in reaction against the protestant rejection of the Medieval model of monastic celibacy. He’s reclaiming the celibate ideal from both the protestant rejection and the misplaced medieval romanticism — while at the same time coming to terms with his own experience in being “questioned up one side by love and down the other by repentence” — and the result is this very dark view of the suffering exception to the universal default of marriage.

    For the corretive I think I’d look not so much to Augustine but rather to St. Benedict and the Rule. The simplicity and the ordinariness of the Benedictine ideal.

  4. Another thing — there’s definitely a sense of links in a chain as you make your way through this book. In Vino ends with the banqueters eavesdropping on the judge and his wife and then the theft of the manuscript. And now that manuscript anticipates Quidam’s Diary by speculating about “the exception” which presumably the diary will exemplify in greater psychological detail.

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